the science of perception and visual literacies

I am interested in the science of perception, by this I mean the physiology and psychology of seeing. Perception can be understood as the process by which the brain selects, organizes, and interprets sensations. Before perception is sensation—input from the physical world obtained by our sensory receptors. Particularly interesting to me are the workings of our sensory receptors. These are specialized neurons that respond to specific types of stimuli. 

The process of converting sensory stimuli into action potential (messages comprehensible to our central nervous system) is called transduction. I think that this process, while a totally natural one that most typically-developed adults are capable of, is deserving of a closer look and far more critical attention. The idea that we can literally absorb raw data from the environment and transform it into sensory information that can chemically alter our cells which then triggers a response in the CNS is rather miraculous, I think. Magical, even! 

The “senses are the physiological basis of perception.” Perhaps one could say the psychological basis of perception is cognition. Some have even gone so far as to argue that the delineation between perception and cognition is blurrier than we previously thought. Distinctions between top-down and bottom-up processing seem to be only provisionally pragmatic at best. Research has shown “higher order” cognitive processes (beliefs, desires, etc.) exert a significant amount of influence on basic perceptual processes. In other words, there is no clear cut division between seeing and thinking. 

This idea brought me to thinking about what the text referred to as visual literacy. I wondered what kinds of visual literacies are necessary for different types of media experiences? What is the prerequisite level of visual literacy required to utilize various methods of visual communication? This also led me to consider how people who are blind or have low vision might participate in different forms of visual communication, and also to think about how the lived experiences of blind or ‘visually impaired’ individuals complicates the very notion of visual literacy.


1: “Module 5: Sensation and Perception,” Introduction to Psychology. Lumen Learning.

2: “Visual Rhetoric/Visual Literacy: Writing About Comics and Graphic Novels.” Writing Studio, Duke University. 

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